Pumped Up Pickup – Turbocharging and all-wheel drive GMC’s Syclone


Turbocharging and all-wheel drive make GMC’s Syclone a ‘find’ for those in search of the spiritual successor to Buick’s legendary GNX

By James D. Sawyer

That, those of you with long memories may remember, is how we characterized the Buick Grand National back when the rear-drive
coupe was capturing enthusiasts’ imaginations half a decade ago. Powered by a 235 hp turbocharged 3.84iter V6, the GM mid-size two-door was a throwback to the classic muscle car era. In other words, its strong suit was prodigious acceleration-but only in a straight line. Its weaknesses were handling and, to a lesser extent, braking.

Despite the obvious limitations of the Grand National, someone at General Motors has continued to be enamored with the idea of mating forced induction with the corporation’s pushrod V6. Even more horsepower was tried-in the limited-edition GNX-and a nimbler, more modem platform was resorted to, the result being (to give it its full and proper name) the Pontiac 20th Anniversary Trans Am Turbo.

Neither of these later attempts could fully overcome the Grand National’s basic problem: the engine’s output overwhelmed the platforms and kept the Buicks and the Pontiac from being well-rounded cars.

Well, rejoice. A solution is at hand. The right car for the job has been found.

And that car is a truck.

Yeah, buddy. A pickup, a specially-prepared but soon-to-be available to the general public GMC Sonoma, to be exact. Complete with a tonneau cover for the bed and a 500-pound cargo capacity.
Not to mention the ability to sprint from zero to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds. Or less.

Unimpressed? All right. Then how about the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds. Or less.

If the “or less” is the main thing that’s piqued your interest in what GMC is calling the Syclone, well, we ask you to be patient for just a matter of minutes more. First we want to tell you how the General’s truck division has been able to get a pedestrian pickup to do everything but leap tall buildings in a single bound.

To start with, the 3.8-liter V6 has gone the way of the passenger pigeon. This is a GMC compact truck so the engine is the 4.3-liter Vortec V6 that’s standard in this model. It’s turbocharged, of course, and intercooled. Instead of the usual air-to-air intercooler found on Detroit products, however, the Syclone uses an air-to-liquid unit for greater and quicker cooling. Which results in greater and quicker boost. Which results in greater and quicker power. Which is transmitted via a four-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels.

The secret of the Syclone is revealed. Full-time four-wheel drive (the same system used by the Olds Bravada and AWD Chevy Astro/GMC Safari) is what makes this turbo V6 truck more successful than the turbo V6 Grand National, GNX or Trans Am Turbo.

Not only can it pick it up, it can put it down. Power, that is. To the tune of 280 hp at 4400 rpm and 360 lb ft of torque at 3600 rpm. Send those numbers out to spin only two tires and you’ll wind up with puddles of molten latex and synthetics, clouds of smoke and little forward motion. Send them out to try to spin four 245/50VR 16 Firestones and you’re going to be off the line like a shot.

Which is exactly what Kim Nielsen, the man behind the Syclone, was after. The young GMC marketing executive has seen more Christmas trees than Santa Claus. Drag racing is part and parcel of his personality. He’d owned a number of Grand Nationals and done fairly well with them at the strip, but knew he’d feel a lot better running a product from the GM division he worked for rather than from one he didn’t.

Plus, he was well aware of the GN’s shortcomings and how they could be solved with four-wheel drive. It took a bit of selling, but he finally convinced GMC brass of the merits of the Syclone project. PAS, Inc., of Troy, Mich., was contracted to build the prototype, and this is the vehicle we drove to a 0-60 mph time of 5.0 seconds. Or less.

O.K., enough teasing. Here’s what we mean by the “or less”: The best times we turned when we drove the Syclone at Milan Dragway on a hot and humid day were 4.69, 0-60 and 13.19 seconds at 102.5 mph for the quarter mile.

Impressive, but there is a caveat. These results–noticeably better than the factory figures of 5.0 and 13.4–were achieved only after the intercooler was packed with ice and the radiator was hosed down. How much such extraordinary means improved the truck’s performance is hard to tell. How much the performance was hurt by the driver being a journalist who’d never responded to Christmas-tree countdown before in his life is hard to tell as well.

The icing of the intercooler is the sort of icing on the cake to which a serious drag racer would resort, so the times are valid dragstrip numbers.
But the Grand National, GNX and Trans Am Turbo could generate those numbers. The beauty of the Syclone is not just that the four-wheel-drive system tames the turbo to let you accelerate, but that it does so to the extent that you can accelerate while coming out of a turn. And that’s something its predecessors found rather harder to do. Giving grip to go along with all that power is the Syclone’s major accomplishment.
Four-wheel ABS is another thing Syclone can boast of that those earlier vehicles couldn’t, although the truck’s disc/drum brakes are overshadowed by the full-disc system of the Trans Am Turbo.

Inside, however, the Syclone doesn’t take a back seat to anyone. There are firm, supportive contoured bucket seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, center console, air conditioning, AM/FM cassette, power windows and locks, all as standard fittings.

All of which costs money, of course. While no firm price has been set yet, we’ve been told to expect something in the neighborhood of $25,000. A tad expensive for a truck–until you consider just what this truck can do.

Similar abilities led to markups and even downright gouging when the GN, GNX and Trans Am Turbo first came out. We don’t expect the same thing to happen here. First of all, we think it’ll take some time for a truck to earn quite the same cachet among enthusiasts as a car would. Secondly, Syclone production will be market driven. And GMC expects that demand will reach about 3000 units in the truck’s first year. That’s twice the number of Trans Am Turbos that were built, and nearly six times the production rate of the GNX.

GMC dealers are standing by to take orders now, although the Syclone won’t go into production until December. Sonoma pickups will be plucked from the line at GM’s Shreveport, La., assembly plant and then take a short trip to the facility that PAS has built nearby. Once the tweaks and the tunes have been completed Syclones will be shipped off to customers, with deliveries expected to commence in January.

And while that might be a little late, something tells us more than a few of them will wind up under a Christmas tree.

Base Price: ……………………………………. $25,000 (est.)
Wheelbase, (in): ……………………………………….. 108.3
Length/width, (in): ………………………………. 180.5/64.8
Curb weight (lb): ………………………………………… 3526
Powertrain: ……. Front-longitudinal, pushrod, intercooled
turbocharged, injected, 4.3-liter/262 cid 90-degree V6,
cast iron block/heads, 280 hp @ 4400 rpm, 360 lb ft @
3600 rpm, full-time awd, four-speed automatic
0-60 (sec): ……………………………………………………. 5.0
Top speed (mph): …………………………………………. n/a
Suspension: …….. Front ind., control arms, torsion bars,
shocks, antiroll bar; rear rigid axle located by
semi-elliptic leaf springs, shocks
Brakes: … Vented discs front/drums rear, four-wheel ABS
Tires: ……………………………………………… 245/50VR-16
Mpg/range: ……. 14 mpg (est) x 20 gal = 280 miles (est)